There isn’t one perfect pregnancy or pre-pregnancy diet that fits all. Food preferences and aversions are part of nature’s way of ensuring the safest nutritional environment for the developing baby, and so approaching nutrition intuitively is often the best way.
Media focus on food, micro-nutrients and the growth of nutrition contribute to women’s concerns. Genetically-modified foods, modern agricultural methods, the cost and relative scarcity of organic produce and the role of advertising and marketing, all add to the challenge.
Adhering to a few basic guidelines will help you tap into the power of food and eating as a health (and happiness) system. If these measures appear daunting, gradually introduce one or two of the principles at a time until they become part of your lifestyle. The benefits will far outweigh what you perceive to be a loss.
Basic guidelines for eating during pregnancy
- Step up your intake of well-liked healthy foods.
- Include foodstuffs from all colour groups. These will provide the nutritional wherewithal for body cells to function properly.
- The closer food is to its natural state, the better. Some foods must be cooked, but include as much raw food as possible in your daily diet, and always start a meal with something fresh.
- Eating healthily 90% of the time, and relaxing a little in between, will help minimise the temptation to stray.
- Many people suffer from indigestion when eating protein and starch together. Try eating deliciously browned steak or tender, flaky fish with only a salad.
- Preferably eat fruit on its own – not only is it a very complete yet simple foodstuff, but its rapid digestibility makes it unsuitable to eat with other foods which take longer to digest.
- Don’t drink large volumes with a meal. Liquid passes through the stomach rapidly and will wash food along with it, and dilute gastric juices.
- Listen to the rhythms of your body – some people are natural ‘grazers’; others do well on the age-old adage of “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a pauper”; and some find that they can’t eat before 11:00.
- Chew your food thoroughly, remembering that digestion starts in the mouth.
- The body’s natural excretory cycle is early in the morning. Eating foods that support the process can be helpful.
- Fruit, which has a high water and fibre content (thus stimulating kidney and bowel function), is ideal.
- Select your favourite foods from largely unprocessed sources.
When eating a varied vegetarian diet, your body can make all the necessary amino acids from the basic plant building blocks. Just guard against eating lots of carbohydrates and cheese, with too little fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Foods for second thought
Pâtés may contain high levels of vitamin A, which, in excessive amounts, has been implicated in some birth defects.
While industry-conducted research indicates their safety, much non-industry-funded research questions this. Rather be safe than sorry. The adverse effects mostly affect the nervous system.
A little dry, quality biltong from a credible source is fine now and again.
Avoid blue-veined, very soft and unpasteurised cheeses. They may contain lysteria, a bacteria that’s been associated with miscarriage or pre-term labour.
Eggs should preferably be free range.
Line fish is a healthy pregnancy food choice if from a fresh, reputable source. There are some concerns about ingestion of toxic substances like mercury, which can affect foetal brain development. Eating sushi and shellfish has a higher risk of food poisoning and allergy. Oily fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel, provide omega 3 essential fatty acids, excellent for developing brains, eyes and immune systems.
Some tree nuts trigger allergies, but if there’s no hereditary allergy, moderate intake is fine. Organic raw nuts are a valuable source of magnesium, calcium and essential fatty acids. Peanuts, which are actually legumes, may be fairly allergenic and should preferably be organically grown.
Eat spicy food if you don’t have heartburn or indigestion. Moms often worry that this will cause harm or trigger colic after birth, but neither is true.
Regular intake of stodgy, sweet treats can lead to blood sugar problems. They put pressure on the pancreas, which produces insulin to help with carbohydrate digestion. Regular and substantial intake may be linked to the increasing rate of diabetes, both gestational and type II. Whole fruit is an excellent source of sustained energy and if you have a sweet tooth, try eating a date or two.
Beverages for second thought
The only known safe limit of alcohol in pregnancy is none.
A cup of good quality coffee daily should be fine. In case of agitation or palpitations, replace with decaffeinated coffee.
Fresh fruit juices are less suitable than eating whole fruit and drinking water. Fruit sugars are released from the fruit cells during juicing and provide a sudden blood sugar increase. When the whole fruit is eaten, sugar is released slowly, leading to more stable blood sugar.
Have no more than two or three weak cups daily. Rooibos is safest and has wonderful health benefits. Green tea is considered to be healthy and is safe to use in moderation. Fennel and ginger tea can help for nausea and indigestion, while chamomile tea (used sparingly) safely assists with restful sleep and reducing anxiety.
Sugary soda drinks
They often contain caffeine, which is a stimulant and can keep the mom-to-be from restful sleep. Each drink also contains loads of sugar, with the same concerns as mentioned for sweet treats.
The body’s fluid needs are about the same as when not pregnant and one should drink at least 1,5–2 l good quality water daily. Preferably use a commercially-available home filter system or reputable bottled water.
Turn the table on cravings
Try to interpret cravings healthily, e.g. a sweet craving = pecan nuts or a banana; salty cravings = avocado, olives, or a baked potato with sesame seeds. Also, eating smaller meals more frequently works for many.
If you’re craving comfort and nurturing, discuss this with your partner, explaining that a woman gives so much while growing a baby and thus needs extra TLC. Otherwise, one might turn to unhealthy food filled with sugar, salt and saturated fat for comfort.
Did you know? Cravings for abnormal substances with no nutritional value, such as soil, ash, chalk and paint, are called pica. This mostly indicates a nutrient deficiency and must be discussed with your doctor. Remember that it’s dangerous to ingest these substances, particularly in significant amounts, because of toxic ingredients.